What I Learned About Humans While Pretending To Fight Zombies
Humans and zombies waged war on a Sydney campus over the weekend. The zombies won. They always win.
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There are seven of us, including me. We’ve been sent to pick up a cache of ammunition from the north-west corner of the contamination zone. There’s talk that it’s an ambush. Steph is the loudest voice of dissent. She’s the only female in our squad, her face painted a deep green like Dutch at the end of Predator or Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now. Or, I suppose but don’t articulate, Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. Her boyfriend Louis is in the squad too.
Even if it is an ambush, reasons the 2IC (a tall athletic guy who goes by Scarecrow, I never get his real name), we’re all armed to the teeth.
“Except him,” Steph interjects. The group looks to me. I have on my person two single shot blasters, a note pad, and a pen.
“Yeah,” says Scarecrow, looking me up and down. “Except him.”
Zedtown works like this. The game starts with 300 players, and takes place over a huge area. Today — Saturday October 12 — it’s at the Sydney University campus. This is the second time the game has been staged; the last Zedtown had just 80 participants. The vast majority of the players begin as Survivors, and are armed with Nerf blasters. These blasters are brought from home, and vary wildly. Some are shotguns. Some are pistols. Others have been modified for extra range and power with canisters of compressed air, or industrial grade springs, or supercharged trustfire batteries. These ones are confiscated before the game begins and put into a distressingly large pile.
The game starts with a few randomly-selected infected players. As with any epidemic, this number will grow exponentially over time. If a player is tagged by one of the Zombies, they become infected themselves. Survivors keep the Zombies at bay by shooting them. Survivors wear orange arm bands; Zombies wear green headbands.
The game lasts six hours. Complete the missions. Stay alive. No climbing. Keep sunsafe.
Yianni is in charge of the squad. He’s a big, loud, gregarious guy with hands like dinner plates. He’s the perfect counterpoint to his second-in-command; Scarecrow lurks at the back of group, barely saying a word, his gun trained on something in the distance. When I first get deployed with the group, it’s Yianni who convinces the rest to take me in.
Steph, ever suspicious, doesn’t believe that I’m with the press and wants to shoot me where I stand. The idea is picking up traction until Yianni spies my game-issued dogtag. It reads ‘80085’, the international numerical code for ‘BOOBS’. I didn’t choose it, but I’m thankful to whoever did, because Yianni lets out a booming giggle, insofar as a giggle can boom, and tells the rest of the team that I’m staying.
Steph is about to object, but in that moment her eyes go wide and she points over Louis’ shoulder.
There’s a lone Zombie coming for the group at post-Romero speeds. Yianni spins around and fires.
‘Hell yeah! I got one! I fucken got one!’.
Emboldened, the group moves to retrieve the cache of ammunition.
The pre-game briefing is carried out in a domed tent in the middle of campus. It’s a 35 degree day and the tent is packed. At a rough estimate, 80% of the assembled players are wearing a costume, and of those the majority wear some variation on army fatigues. Aviator sunglasses are probably over-represented.
Those not in camo gear are more creative. One woman wears an otherwise immaculate blood-splattered wedding dress. Another is costumed as a bounty hunter. One guy, for reasons unclear, wears old-timey explorer get-up, complete with pith helmet. Almost all the players wear earpieces which, I will later learn, are tuned into the game’s own dedicated radio station. Manned by Zedtown co-creator Jordan Raskopoulos, the broadcast provides information about the location of infected hordes and special missions, and plays the Ghostbusters theme.
No one seems to mind the heat. Sweltering in my singlet and shorts, I find this perplexing.
We haven’t seen any infected since the one Yianni shot and won’t stop going on about. There’s a moment when we see a group of Survivors warding off what looks like an unkillable Zombie, but she turns out to be a Survivor wearing sunglasses with green sides. We’re relieved. She’s confused.
Despite Yianni’s approval, the rest of the group remains sceptical of me.
If I’m really press, asks one, then why aren’t I asking any questions? This is a fair observation, but does not take into account the possibility that I am just very bad at my job. Steph keeps her gun trained on me as we make our way toward the cache.
We run into another group of Survivors. They’ve heard about the cache over the radio, and have already lost half their group in an ambush. You guys, they assure us, are walking into a trap.
On a stage at the front of the tent, David Harmon — who runs the Zedtown games along with Raskopoulos — explains the official rules of the game, the players nodding along. Before introducing a towering, bearded ‘combat expert’ who goes by the name of Max Fightmaster, he lays down one last rule.
”The golden rule,” Harmon begins, “is that we are all adults playing with children’s toy guns. Please do not forget this, don’t be that guy. Have fun.”
A roar of approval goes up in the crowd and Nerf bullets are fired into the air, and then awkwardly collected from the ground.
No one wants to get the cache anymore. Not even Scarecrow. We’re about thirty feet from the drop zone. I can see the cache. It’s an old ammunition tin sitting in the middle of a footpath. The only way to access it is from a narrow corridor.
”We have enough ammo,” says Louis. Steph agrees. Yianni is ready to turn the group around, retreat to somewhere safer and in the open.
The problem here is that I want my story. I want to write about this group of Survivors taking the cache; I don’t want to write about people turning back.
“I’ll get it.”
I move toward the cache.
”Well, fuck,” says Yianni, taking the bait. “Are you just going to let him die, or are we going to cover him?”
Scarecrow nods, the rest of the group falls into line.
The most remarkable thing about the game is how quickly it sucks you in. I had initially assumed that my willingness to suspend disbelief would be trumped by my desire to not run around playing make-believe like a stupid dickhead. This, it turns out, is completely incorrect.
The fear is genuine, the inter-Survivor arguments are not feigned; you actually peer around corners, guns at the ready, and shout things like ”Clear!“ and ”fall back!“ without a trace of self-awareness. When you run from a horde, you run with adrenaline. The guns are plastic and fluoro, the Zombies are just people wearing green headbands, but the game is so immersive I saw no fewer than three people almost taken out by very real cars while fleeing extremely fake Zombies.
When I’m ten feet from the cache, Scarecrow shouts ‘wait!’ before dispatching two Zombies hiding behind a tree. That was some ambush. The tension releases, Louis takes the cache. We’re done here; we decide to head back to safety when we hear the unmistakable scream of the horde.
There are at least 15 of them. The first two were a trap. Yianni screams ”left flank!“, which is problematic as no one in the group knows what that requires them to do. It’s chaos.
Steph no longer has her gun trained on me; it’s on four Zombies racing toward her.
Scarecrow is taken out first. The rest not long after. I run. This wasn’t the story I wanted to write.
There are those who don’t heed the golden rule — who let the immersion overpower the fun — but they are few. There’s a group of guys all dressed in SWAT gear who seem to be both extremely hostile and missing the point. They have set up a quarantine area in the middle of the map and will not even allow bona-fide Survivors in. When I tell them I’m writing an article, they train their guns on me and tell me to “keep on walking”.
For most of the people I meet, though, belief is suspended to the perfect degree. Late in the afternoon, a group of players have been tasked with the mission of collecting jerry-cans of ‘fuel’ and bringing them to a designated point. After one of the Survivors explains the mission to me he smiles and says, ”It’s a pretty cool game mechanic, yeah?“
Then his face drops as he shouts to his squad, “Alright let’s get that fuel!”
After the disaster with Yianni’s group, I move around by myself, trying to find a squad that will take me in. People are even more suspicious now. Everyone’s lost someone and aren’t sure who to blame. I come across two brothers, Michael and Mark, who are guarding the north-east corner of the map. They’re pretty safe here, Michael tells me. Mark looks fidgety.
I tell them I’m looking for a mission to follow around. Mark’s ears prick up and he tells me he’ll take me wherever I want to go. Michael has a leg injury and can’t run; he doesn’t want to go, but he also doesn’t want to leave his little brother. They agree to take me to one of the drop zones.
It doesn’t take long before another horde finds us. The rules of engagement dictate that, as press, I can’t fire my meagre guns unless I’m personally being attacked. As a result, I stand next to Mark and watch him try and keep them away from his limping brother, hands by my side, only able to shout. Michael is taken quickly; I grab Mark and we run. Not again.
The grammar of the Zombie survival film is so well-known by the participants that all of the film cliches emerge completely organically within the game. Without exaggeration, in every single group I encountered there was some variation on the dangerous hot-head (Steph), the wise-cracking smart-arse (Yianni), the pensive badass (Scarecrow), the brave and stoic liability (Michael), and the coward (me).
The interesting thing is that these roles weren’t assigned. The participants fell into them naturally, understanding implicitly what was required of them to move their own group’s micro-story along. What these groups were doing, when they weren’t shooting foam darts at other groups, was essentially play-building – going beyond the suspension of disbelief and into the realms of performance.
While it’s technically possible for the Survivors to win a game of Zedtown, it’s never happened before — and that, it seems, is the point. Harmon is a theatre director by trade and Raskopolous an award-winning improvisor. I’d suggest this is no coincidence. The appeal of the game isn’t that Nerf guns are fun or that Zombies are cool – although both of these things are true – nor is it particularly about survival or outlasting the rest of the group – although, as previously mentioned, for some participants it is and those people are the worst.
What it is about, as far as I can tell, is collectively building a world that is fun to occupy for six hours, and then, as a group, writing a sprawling epic in real time.
Not that anyone there would admit that. After all, it’s just a bunch of adults playing with children’s toy guns.
I’ve lost Michael. I’ve been separated from everyone. A horde of about 70 came and scattered the group. I’m no longer frightened. I’m angry about Yianni and his team. I’m angry about Michael. I am also sunburnt and hungry. I cock my two guns and point them at the approaching Zombies.
I manage to take out two, reload my single-shooters and take out two more. There’s no point though, I’m surrounded. I drop my guns and fall to the ground. There’s a hand on my shoulder, I turn around and see that it belongs to Steph, who’s now wearing a green headband.
‘Don’t worry,’ she says cheerfully, ripping the orange band from my arm, ‘it’s fun being a Zombie.’
Feature image © 2013 Alex Gabbott